Doctrinal Diversity in the 20th Century

The lead editorial in the special SoF magazine issue on doctrinal diversity was written by Patti Whaley, chair of the UK network.

When Ray Billington introduced himself, at a recent Oxford lecture, as "the world’s only living convicted heretic", he got a relaxed chuckle from his audience. Heresy, at least in the West, is hardly dangerous any more – it’s a badge of honour. Quaint and exotic, with just enough frisson to be sexy instead of shocking. In this issue of the magazine, though, we propose to look more closely at the Christian tradition’s efforts to impose some sort of doctrinal discipline on itself, and to begin an examination of how the Sea of Faith might understand and react to those efforts.

The immediate impetus for this discussion came from the Church of Ireland’s charge of heresy against Andrew Furlong in the spring of 2002; but its roots are much deeper and wider-reaching. Since its inception, the Sea of Faith has championed the ability of both clergy and lay people to ask the most radical, probing questions of what is meant by religious language and religious faith, and has provided a community within which those questions can be discussed with openness, honesty, and fearlessness. For some members, this has led them away from formal religion; for others, it has provided the safety valve that lets them stay within the church. For a large number – perhaps most – of us, it has led to a re-thinking of the role that doctrinal beliefs play in religion.

Church-goers generally assume that statements of doctrinal belief are at the heart of religion. The articles by Don Cupitt and Peter Phillips in this magazine offer explanations of why doctrine has become so much more important in Christianity than in other religions, while Craig Dickson’s discussion of the heyday of English heresy trials, immediately before and after the English Reformation, illustrates how doctrinal purity was enforced by the power of the Crown. To take the wrong view of transubstantiation was not just heretical: it was treasonous.

Imagine, then, my sharp intake of breath when I first read Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God. The shock was not because Cupitt said that God, His creation of the world, and His promises of reward or punishment in the next life didn’t "exist", at least not in the sense that we usually think of existence. No, what surprised me was his claim that such propositions do not in themselves create a religious demand; the true religious demand, that "impersonal categorically binding unconditional principle against which to bounce ourselves", could exist quite independently of statements about God. Cupitt didn’t so much refute the Creeds as declare them largely irrelevant to the religious life. For those of us who thought that the Creeds were the primary entry-ticket to Christianity, this turned the question of essentials and non-essentials on its head.

The Christian churches, as we know, have not flocked to Cupitt’s approach. Although they try to avoid open conflict with their own doubting clerics as much as possible, the limits beyond which clergy cannot go in speaking about belief are still fairly traditional. Andrew Furlong’s case may have been the first formal heresy charge within the Anglican church in over 130 years, but the issue is far from dead. George Schriver’s Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity lists 50 cases, of which a surprising 23 fall within the 20th century. Ronald Pearse’s survey in this magazine lists disciplinary cases in the UK, New Zealand and Australia against Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian clergy during the past two centuries, while Michael Morton takes a look at the Modernist heresy in the Roman Catholic church. Ray Billington provides an "up close and personal" account of his defrocking by the Methodist church in 1971.

The Church of England is continuing to study the best approach towards disciplining clergy who violate norms of doctrine or belief, with a view towards replacing and modernizing local ad hoc disciplinary procedures such as those used to sack Anthony Freeman in 1994; we include an update on this continuing study and its likely outcomes, with reference to the related DTI consultation on the employment status of clergy.

Meanwhile, the growing tensions between traditionalists and liberals mean that the "H word" is applied to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s views on women and homosexuals, the chief Rabbi’s views on whether Judaism has anything to learn from other religions, and the attendance of an American preacher at a multifaith worship service in the aftermath of September 11.

Deplorable? Maybe – but certainly understandable. After all, everyone knows what Amnesty International stands for, or what Greenpeace stands for, or what UNICEF stands for; these secular organisations expect their spokespersons to be on message, promoting a clearly packaged and consistent brand -- as do we, their sound-bite-oriented audience. Surely the church should be allowed to do the same? How can it compete in the marketplace of ideas if the doubters keep distorting the message?

Hence, the questions posed by this study: is it possible for Christianity to take on board radically diverse approaches to religious meaning, without losing its coherence and identity? If we think that the church’s emphasis on credal conformity is misplaced, can we propose a better way of defining what Christianity is about?

In the introduction to Orthodoxy and Heresy in Religious Movements: Discipline and Dissent, editors Malcolm Greenshields and Thomas A Robinson described the problem this way: "In the throes of religious conflict, "establishment" disciplinarians and "heretical" dissenters often develop a key idea or moral priority that they regard as being of ultimate importance. With the orthodox, it is usually unity, whereas with the heretic it may be some sort of moral or doctrinal rigor. The orthodox may therefore accuse the heretic of destroying unity, while the heretic accuses the orthodox of ignoring error, condoning impurity, or of fossilizing the vital essence in a dynamic world." Can this dilemma be resolved?

Don’t look for the answers in this magazine! What we’ve gathered here is a set of resources to help all of us understand the historical background and frame the issues involved, so that we can begin to debate possible alternatives. Our London Conference on 29 March, titled "A World of Difference", asks a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian to talk about how their religion manages internal diversity and division. Some Sea of Faith local groups have scheduled special sessions on this topic, and the national conference will include at least one workshop session where we can look at our progress to date. Read on; we may not arrive at any answers, but we’re sure to have a good debate.